“West Michigan Nice is this strange cultural loophole around issues where you can’t seem to get full honesty from your closest neighbor, your coworker, and sometimes even your family.”
Our culture of wanting to please people and avoid disruption is spilling into the workplace, which makes understanding the true condition of our companies nearly impossible.
How can we move forward on issues when our colleagues won’t convey the problem? How can we improve when someone is skirting the truth instead of sharing it? How can we expect our employees to share how they really feel, when leadership lacks transparency themselves?
“West Michigan Nice” Can Cost You
I can speak to “West Michigan Nice” as I have lived here most of my life, and I must say, there is something “Nice” about West Michigan. I can say this because I have also lived in other areas, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Northern Indiana, and comparably, they are not as “Nice.”
What do I mean by this? What is the fuss behind this article? Being nice is civil, relatively peaceful, and most importantly, it’s not disruptive. However, where I have seen West Michigan Nice hurt our community most is in the workplace, specifically with leadership teams. And here is my major concern: it can cost your company thousands if not millions.
To Beat a Bad Culture, Implement a New One
Prior to becoming my client, a leadership team member of a manufacturing company asked me, “Ken, what is the most difficult thing to implement into companies?”
I replied without hesitation: “An open and honest culture.”
This is true across the spectrum. Without a doubt, the most difficult and essential piece to implement into companies is getting leadership teams to be open and honest with each other.
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“West Michigan Nice” Hard at Work
I was working with a leadership team to implement the Entrepreneurial Operating System into their organization. In the beginning, things seemed cordial, but as sessions progressed the West Michigan Nice toxicity reared its ugly head.
During a break, the Head of Finance told me that the owner strongly disliked accountability and would do anything to sabotage this process. I said, “Great, let’s put this on the issues list.” His response, “Oh no! I would be out of a job if that happened.”
One week after our Vision Building session, the Head of Operations told me that the Head of Sales didn’t really care about executing on the goals she agreed to. I said, “Great, let’s put this on the issues list.” His reply, “We could, but it’s not really an issue.”
Shortly after our 2nd Vision Building session, the owner was worried about the Head of Marketing’s ability to interact with other team members with respect. Before I could say, let’s put it on the issues list, the owner proceeded to share that it’s something that he intends to avoid because it’s useless to talk about.
In my mind, I was counting the dollars of wasted time this leadership team must have spent talking about shallow irrelevant topics. I was imagining the rest of their employees acting the same way their leaders were. I was afraid for this company’s future if no one was willing to enter the danger zone. Who was going to talk about the lack of accountability to profitability? Who was going to ask the owner to step up and lead? Who was going to push for what was right?
Using Honesty to Solve the Problem
After all this toxicity took place, the team came together for another session. I began the session by saying, “Today we need to evolve as an open and honest team. We need to expose the true condition of this company because only then can we really create progress.”
And this time would be different, someone decided to expose the truth. In one brief moment of courage, the Head of Finance added the issue about the owner’s lack of buy-in. A few moments of truth later, Operations confronted Sales and the owner called out Marketing. The conversation was riddled with conflict, sparking emotions, and debate.
The result was a team entering the danger zone, a team willing to discuss the tough subjects, and ultimately, a team ready to start spending time on truth. The team had resolved a majority of its dysfunction in just a few short hours. At the end of the session, they rated themselves, but this time the ratings were the highest they had ever been. The common thread in the positive feedback for the session was the team’s appreciation for the truth.
This is us. This is “West Michigan Nice” in the workplace. Although it feels civil and safe, it’s costing us time, money, and frustration. So, my plea to West Michigan professionals: let’s quit deceiving each other, step up and own our roles, expose the truth, and get some real earth-shattering progress.
A big thank you to Grace VanDenBrink for all your help with this article!